Hallowe’en Special: Anonymous Clowns

lukemLuke is a PhD student, broadly interested in the development of children’s decision-making behaviours within an intergroup context. His work seeks to explore the contexts within which burgeoning morality may act as a primary or secondary influence in comparison to the influence of the peer group. This work draws upon Social Identity Development Theory and Social Domain Theoretical perspectives. In the process of examining this relationship He is also interested in Theory of Mind ability, Group Identification, Status Threat and Social Acumen.

He has recently written for Newsweek on the social psychology behind the anonymous clowns. Read his piece by clicking on the picture below. If you’re brave enough….


Luke is less clown-like on Twitter: @LukeMcGuireX


One like me! Toying with the Doll Industry


Dr. Sian Jones is a Teaching Fellow at Goldsmiths, University of London. Her research focuses on discrimination and prejudice among children and adults based on membership of a given group – and how friendships may be encouraged between children from different groups. Here, she looks at the Psychology behind the importance of representing disability in the toy industry. 


A lot of attention has focused on the toy industry of late, alongside changes in what is available and who it is targeted at. This ranges from the “let toys be toys” campaign pressuring for non-gendered marketing of products, to a plethora of companies like this one  marketing toys specifically designed to eradicate ethnic bias in dolls. This is coupled with changes to Barbie dolls both to make their shape more realistic, and to represent the careers that women may pursue.

Another avenue of change has been led by the #toylikeme campaign, with a recent petition garnering over 800 000 signatures, pressuring the industry to represent disability in their product line. Watching the video below, one could accuse anyone not able to see the joy of representation of being utterly cold-hearted.


Anecdotally, I know that my mother, and many others, banned Barbies from my toy collection . This only served to make them more attractive to me, in spite of not really being a “doll-playing” child  ( I persuaded a friend to gift me one). And I can’t tell you how I would have reacted to a toy like the one above, because I never had one. But – as a scientist – I know that the plural of anecdote (be it from my own experience, or the video above) is not data – not evidence.  So are the  changes in the toy  industry worhwhile psychologically? Are they grounded in research evidence?  Or should we retire the representative toy box to the attic?

A review of the evidence suggests not. Firstly,  it turns out that what a doll looks like matters. Ditmar (2006) took 162 girls, from age 5 to age 8, and exposed them to images of either Barbie dolls, Emme dolls (U.S. size 16), or no dolls (baseline control). Girls exposed to Barbie reported lower body esteem and greater desire for a thinner body shape than girls in the other  conditions. Moreover, the careers that dolls are depicted as having does have a real influence on children’s conceptions of the career paths that are open to them (Coyle, 2010). Coyle took girls aged 4-5 years, and interviewed them, using Barbies dressed in gender traditional and non-traditional career outfits. She found that girls identified more often with the dolls in gender traditional career clothes. However, following exposure to the  dolls with gender non-traditional careers, girls saw themselves being able to engage in a greater proportion of gender non-typical careers as an adult than before exposure. This study has since been replicated (see Sherman & Zubriggen, 2014, for example) with consistent findings.

The Seminal Doll Studies 

Next, let’s look at the question of ethnicity. This is actually where the central debate started, with a study by Clark & Clark (1947) that has become a classic in Psychology.

In what became a series of experiments, Clark and Clark showed Black children between the ages of six and nine years two dolls, one white and one black, and then asked them questions, like “show me the doll that you like best or that you’d like to play with,”or “show me the doll that looks ‘bad’.” In these studies,  around 44% said the White doll looked like them. In one version of the study Clark gave the test to 300 children in different parts of the country. He found that Black children who went to segregated schools were more likely to pick the white doll as the nice one. These findings carried considerable weight. They became part of Brown v Board of Education case. And they began the start of a movement towards multiracial education. A study by Powell-Hopson and Hopson (1988) showed that in a post-intervention aimed at tackling negative stereotypes, children chose a black doll. And like the gender / career studies, this one has also been replicated, ad infinitum.  For example, in 2005, Davis asked 21 children and 71% told her that the white doll was the nice one.

Dolls are not us

In spite of the compelling findings above, the eagle-eyed among you may have started to critique them. Recent replications of the Clark doll test have used very small samples, and were not published academically. And, it has also been noted that the contact children had with different ethnicities was not controlled, and the study lacked a control for ethnicity, of both the dolls, and the experimenters. Moreover, children don’t actually play with the dolls, and this is a forced-choice task.

In the most critical appraisal, Bergner (2009) noted that these studies show very little beyond preference: they have been used to make claims about self-esteem, but self-esteem has not actually been measured. Further, since Black children do have commensurate self-esteem to white children these preference studies are just that – about preference – representing the political and capitalist culture of the time. Wanting that to change, requires much more than raising self-esteem among Black children.

In sum, there is little in the ethnicity  “doll studies” to suggest that there is a psychological need for investment in representative toys to boost children’s self-esteem. But that is because there is no evidence – not because the evidence suggests otherwise.

Back to the toy box

Before we grow disilusioned, and throw out the doll with the bath water, let’s return to disability. Here, the  toy box is less replete with resources. The market simply doesn’t prodce so many toys – although Playmobil and Lego are  due to bring out such examples this year. “Doll” study findings are consistent with the above (and the above caveats). For example, Saha et al. (2014)  showed children with Down Syndrome two dolls, one with a “typically developing” appearance and one with the phenotypic features of Downs Syndrome. Fifty four children participated in play sessions with both dolls and were then interviewed. They prefered to play with, and attributed more positive traits to, the typical doll than the doll with Downs Syndrome.

That’s all very well, but, as noted earlier, it takes two to tango. And going back to the market, isn’t it important that toys represent diversity to all  children? In a study by Srinivasan and  Cruzhis (2015) children between 6 and 13 years of age used ethnically diverse dolls to explore and verbalise their knowledge of ‘race’. Children were able to articulate how they related to these dolls. Dolls, it seems, may be an important educational tool, for opening up dialogue. Further studies with such dolls (e.g., Smith, 2013) indicate that such dolls support the development of young children in increasing their empathy and in opening discussion about treatment of stigmatized groups. A project evaluating their use is underway.

Where now?

It seems from this review that – as far as gender is concerned – there is  strong evidence for the psychological impact of (poor) representation on children’s Psychology. There is less evidence of impact from ethnic doll studies – but this is largely because the studies have measured only ethnic preference, and not looked at outcomes like career aspirations or race-related self-esteem. Studies that have, have noted an impact. The research agenda might turn to closing this gap: to measuring the self-image, aspirations, empathy and anxiety (as well as prejudices) of those  from all groups exposed to representative toys. As it stands, in a world of White privilege, it is arguably hardly surprising that a white doll is preferred.

When it comes to disability, unlike with ethnicity, one finds that such research has not been an option until very recently: the toys themselves are, relatively speaking, all-but absent.  We know that children most easily discuss issues in contexts that are familiar to them – such as play (Srinivasan &  Cruzhis, 2015). In this regard, there is growing evidence that representative dolls are a good thing. They open dialogue around prejudice and enable discussion and empathy. If such toys are not there, the opportunity for this discussion is lost. At a broader level, if we do want to change the status quo in our society – we know that acceptance of prejudice and inequality doesn’t magically appear at 18 years of age. When it comes to fairer representation, there might be no better place to start than the toy box.


I like the way you move: The social neuroscience of dance

Guido-Orgs-1ADr. Guido Orgs received his training in both Performing Dance (Folkwang University of the Arts) and Psychology (University of Dusseldorf). After completion of his PhD in Cognitive Neuroscience, he performed with German Dance Company NEUER TANZ/VA WÖLFL. At the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, UCL, he conducted research on how we perceive other people’s movements and how the brain mechanisms of movement perception underlie the aesthetics of dance and the performing arts.

Since September 2015 he is a Lecturer in Psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London teaching Psychology of the Arts and Neuroaesthetics. Funded by an ESRC transformative research grant he currently investigates synchrony in performing dance, collaborating with Choreographer Matthias Sperling  Dr Annemieke Apergis-Schoute, Cambridge University, and Dr Daniel Richardson, UCL. Here, he explores dance as a means of social bonding.  

Why do human and other animals dance? Across all known cultures people dance, to worship, to entertain, to show off, or simply to have fun. Despite its universal nature, dance has been rarely studied by Psychologists and Cognitive Neuroscientists alike. This is surprising, given that dance shares many similarities with music and language.

Evolution suggests at least two potential reasons for why people dance. Firstly, to have sex: Many bird species engage in very complex choreographies of sound and movement to attract mating partners, for example the Australian Lyrebird. Secondly dancing in groups might foster bonding between group members. People who move together, begin to like each other.

Dance for social cohesion

We recently completed a research project in which we asked groups of people to perform a series of choreographic tasks. In one condition people were asked to swing their arms together in synchrony. In a second condition, groups performed the same choreographic tasks asynchronously. Using smart watches, we measured each participant’s movements and computed how much the group moved in unison. Following these dance workshops, participants completed a range of tasks that measured how much the group had bonded. Participants who synchronised with each other most successfully, liked each other more than participants who hadn’t synchronized with each other. We also asked group members to decide to to go to a restaurant together and choose from a range of options.

The time that participants took to decide on a restaurant depended on how well they had synchronised before. The more successfully movements were coordinated in a group, the longer did it take for group members to make a decision. Presumably, this is because more opinions were heard and the group found it more difficult to reach a compromise. In groups that hadn’t bonded so well, decisions were made faster, perhaps with less consideration for individual opinions.

But is participants’ movement as well as synchrony important?

Dancing together thus helps to form social bonds. Yet, especially in Western societies, relatively few people perform or engage in dancing or making music themselves. Most people assume a more passive role, watching other people dance or making music together, whether live, on the internet or TV in shows such as BBC’s “Strictly Come Dancing”. Do some of the prosocial effects of dancing together translate to the engagement of audiences with performative art?

Group Study at Brunel 22515 IMG_4616 copy

Group Study performance

In collaboration with Choreographer Matthias Sperling we recently investigated this question: Does movement synchrony predict the spectator’s enjoyment of a live performance? We developed a piece for ten performers “Group study”. The piece was based on the same choreographic tasks that were used in our previous study on the social effects of synchrony. Ten performers performed these tasks in synchrony or in asynchrony, while audiences rated their enjoyment of the performance using tablet computers.

Indeed, movement synchrony on stage predicted how much spectators enjoyed the performance, but only if spectators engaged with the performance as whole. Spectators who didn’t like the performance, also disliked watching moments of high synchrony. In contrast spectators who enjoyed the performance also enjoyed moments of high synchrony the most. Spectators who were indifferent to the performance as a whole, neither enjoyed synchrony nor asynchrony. In other words, if spectators didn’t’ care about watching the performance, they also didn’t care about synchrony. Arguably, watching dance is not everyone’s cup of tea…


If you’d like to hear more about the social neuroscience of dance, come and visit us at Siobhan Davies Dance Studios on the 27th of May, 7 pm. You will be able to explore some of the choreographic tasks that we use in our research and hear more about our research! Tickets may be bought online here.




More than ‘just a joke’: An evolutionary psychologist’s guide to appreciating humour.


As Valentine’s Day fast approaches, Dr. Mary Louise Cowan, who completed her PhD in Psychology at the University of Stirling, considers the role of humour in our relationships, and provides us with a timely, evidence-based guide to using it to our advantage.

Dr. Mary Cowan is a Teaching Fellow in the Department of Psychology, Goldsmiths, University of London.

 It’s difficult to imagine what life would be like if we had never evolved one of our most prized skills; our sense of humour. Perhaps never hearing a “knock knock” joke or wondering why that chicken did cross the road would be no great loss, but life would be a lot quieter if we never exchanged a funny word or a laugh. Humour appears to be a universal trait (Martin, 2006) and thus an evolved skill. Yet, being funny does not appear to have any immediate survival benefits, as many of our other evolved skills do.

Furthermore, being deliberately funny (for a lot of us) tends to be a relatively difficult thing to master (Flamson & Barrett, 2008). Humour requires many skills; we need to be observant of our surroundings, of the situation, and to whom we are speaking, in order to produce something which is relevant and appropriate for our audience. Humour also requires a sense of timing, Theory of Mind [the understanding that others have thoughts and mental states which are different and separate to our own], and the ability to be creative in producing an original witticism. Finally, we need to have confidence to speak up and be heard while we joke and also confidence that we won’t be too red-faced if the joke happens to backfire. Anyone who has ever had a joke go wrong (obviously this is not something I have experience with…!) will know the shame and embarrassment associated with this. We might laugh it off at the time but ill-judged humour can lead to severe consequences, professionally and personally.

Even if we’re in a situation where humour is going right, the next thing to question is why we are bothering in the first place. This question is at the heart of why humour is so interesting; it is challenging and risky to produce, yet it is ubiquitously used in a wide range of contexts and appears to be universally attractive (Kaufman et al., 2008).

So why bother?

One explanation for why we use humour, despite the difficulty and the risk, is the Interest Indicator Theory (Li et al., 2009). This theory suggests that being funny for the sake of someone else helps to demonstrates that we are interested in them – precisely because humour is effortful. So, going to the effort of producing humour is flattering for the recipient. Being able to use humour in this way could be a very important skill because forging social connections and making has many benefits; Friends can provide support and this support can have a very positive impact on our mental well-being, our physical health, and even our longevity (Holt-Lunstad, Smith, & Layton, 2010). As such, being able to use one’s sense of humour to initiate strong social connections would have been a very useful skill indeed in terms of our evolutionary past.

But we don’t all like the same jokes…

Just because someone says something funny to us, and makes that effort, does not necessarily mean that we will appreciate it. Whilst humour might be universal, that does not mean we will all find the same jokes funny. It also does not mean we will find the same people funny.

In my research with colleagues from Abertay University, University of Stirling, and McMaster University, we were interested in testing to see if participants are selective in whose jokes they find funniest, to understand more about why we find certain people funnier than others. Research has demonstrated that we tend to form alliances and friendships with people who are similar to us (Apicella, Marlowe, Fowler, Christakis, 2012). With this in mind, in our study (Cowan, et al., in press), we measured how dominant our participants were and then played them audio clips of people telling jokes. What our participants were not aware of was that the voices they were listening to were digitally manipulated to sound more or less dominant. For male voices, this meant lowering the voice pitch to make the voice more dominant and raising the voice pitch to make it less dominant (for female voices, this meant raising the voice pitch to make it sound more dominant and lowering the voice pitch to make it sound less dominant). We then played the clips to our participants and asked them if they preferred the joke told by the dominant voice or the non-dominant voice. Each participant heard the same joke being told twice and the order of the voices was counterbalanced.

Finding similar others

Our findings demonstrated that men who were more physically dominant tended to like the dominant male jokers more, whereas the men who were less physically dominant (less big and muscly) found the less dominant voices telling jokes funnier (Our female participants didn’t demonstrate any preferences for either of the voices, regardless of their own dominance). Furthermore, in a follow-up to this study, we found that the effect is specific to jokes; other types of speech are not subject to the same judgement. This tells us something about the importance of the subtle cues we send when we tell someone a joke. Whilst the pitch of our voice can help to communicate how dominant a person is, a joke can help to communicate that we may be interested in cooperating with the recipient of our humour. If the recipient perceives that we are similar to them, perhaps in our dominance or possibly even in other domains, it is likely that they may find the joke funnier than if we seem different from them.

Research has shown us that the usefulness of humour can extend far beyond making someone laugh. It can tell someone that we’re interested in them and that we may wish to cooperate with them; both vital aspects of forming friendships and relationships with others. Using humour to initiate and maintain those crucial networks helps us to understand why our sense of humour exists and why it is such an important and valued skill in human societies.